Okay, radical honesty: my first instinct with this review was to start with a quote from Third Person, wherein the distant and emotionally self-serving Michael (Liam Neeson) tells his semi-clandestine lover Anna (Olivia Wilde) that a story she wrote was “beautiful, but cold.” This would, obviously, dovetail into explaining how this quote is reflective of the film itself, perhaps even serving as unintentional meta-commentary. Alternately, I also thought about just throwing down the gauntlet with that hoary adage, “the devil is in the details.” Luckily, I pride myself on a halfway-decent editorial instinct, and thus opted to refrain from both. It’s fine to dip into the “easy out” trick bag gifted to every writer since forever once in a while, but all things in moderation, right?
Movies have trick bags, too, with their concomitant easy tropes, stereotypes, and “artful touches.” Writer/Director Paul Haggis (Crash) should consider hiring someone in the future whose job it is to keep his hand from dangling too long in the trick bag, because despite its promising structure, it is in these tropes, stereotypes, etc. that his new film stumbles.
Third Person centers on triads (thus the title, get it?): Haggis says that “in any relationship there is always a third person; perhaps not romantically, perhaps not even consciously,” and to his credit, he wields this conceit consistently and adeptly. Adult relationships are complicated by relationships with their children; marriages are muddied by outside lovers; even lawyer/client relationships are marred by the worker/employee dynamic. The film itself is a triptych, albeit one twisted into a convoluted (but never quite inscrutable) bramble, making for some genuinely surprising meetings and connections, even as it births some pretty hokey bits of synchronicity. The latter seems to get tossed in whenever Haggis doubts the audience’s ability to recognize how the stories are interconnected, which proves to be a patronizing and distracting habit.
This habit of patronizing is a recurring distraction throughout Third Person. Haggis has managed to finagle an all-star cast (Neeson and Wilde are joined by Mila Kunis, James Franco, Kim Basinger, Adrien Brody, and Maria Bello, among others), most of them relatively infrequent art house visitors who seem to share Haggis’s contention that they’re “taking chances” with this film, and boy, they don’t want you to forget it. It’s fine that it’s not really as boundary-stretching as they’d like to think — lots of great films color within the lines — but their self-perpetuated illusion that they’ve created a groundbreaking, challenging work lends the film a smug and self-congratulatory overtone, the high fives and back-slaps echoing onto the final soundtrack.
It must also be said that the limb on which Third Person tries to climb has already been occupied for decades by legend/trigger warning Woody Allen. As a study of moral relativism and human ambiguity, Third Person owes an enormous debt to Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors, and Neeson’s Michael in particular treads ground covered prior in Deconstructing Harry. Haggis even tries for some semblance of the witty, bitchy repartee characteristic of Allen’s better dramatic work, but Haggis is no Allen: Neeson and Wilde’s backbiting love/hate dynamic is more obnoxious than it is funny or sexy, and Brody (as a shifty, troubled “fashion spy”) speaks in a torrent of largely charmless sub-Allen quips. Still, as unpopular as Allen is to reference at the moment, there are worse places to start.
The problem is, Haggis only starts. The dialogue is stilted at best; the moral gradients inherent to his characters’ “complex personalities” are showcased just enough to move the story along. The lion’s share of the characters come off instead as sketches of an amoral, unlikable bourgeoisie who do nothing to invite the sympathy that the story demands. This would be fine if it were satirizing that culture, but this is a far cry from Buñuel: we’re supposed to care about these creeps. Unfortunately, even the ensemble’s closest thing to appealing characters, Bello’s put-upon lawyer Theresa and Basinger’s defeated cuckquean Elaine, both take extended turns being insufferable turds, and the rest of the cast fares far worse (speaking of insufferable turds, we must make mention of the score, in which Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli [Atonement] amplifies all of Third Person’s worst elements with a blunt, heavy-handed weepiness that consistently deflates the film from the word “go”).
The film’s worst sin, though, is the way Haggis writes his female characters. Watching Third Person with the current “Men’s Rights” trend fresh on the mind, one can’t help but think that Haggis, too, thinks that women are the root of all evil (“perhaps not even consciously”). The female characters are all angry, irrational, and mean, with the exception of Loan Chabanol’s Sam, who instead opts for virtual invisibility. Inasmuch as redemption exists here, it comes to the male cast via shows of strength and/or trust, while the best the women can hope for is acquiescence to their male counterpart’s strength/trust. Women who at first appear strong and independent are shown later to be damaged and confused victims. Acknowledging that Haggis’s conceit of complexity and ambiguity leaves room to explore each character’s weaknesses doesn’t change the fact that at least some show of feminine strength untouched by furious emotional desperation would have been a nice touch.
This is all a shame, because skeletally, Third Person is a pretty good melodrama. The pacing is tight but fluid, even as it’s aggressively invited to meander; the slow reveal of its characters is often intriguing, even suspenseful. The complicated structure of the story isn’t quite original, but it’s enjoyable. Any acknowledgment of moral relativism, too, is welcome in an increasingly polarized sociopolitical climate, even if it’s in a story where almost every character remains a scumbag. Sadly, for all its potential, Third Person basically falls flat, a victim of shallowness and uneven execution.
Ah, fuck it. The devil is in the details. “It’s beautiful, but cold.”